Digital media’s power for all kinds of good: One student’s story

By Anne Collier

Rarely do we hear stories about how playing in digital environments in school – much less playing a popular videogame not originally designed for school – can be life-changing in a good way. So here’s one (names in the story have been changed to protect everybody’s privacy):

For four years, starting in 2008, when he was in middle school, “Zach” participated in the WoWinSchool Club every day after school.

“WoW” is short for the multiplayer online game World of Warcraft; “WoWinSchool” is short for WoWinSchool: A Hero’s Journey, a curriculum designed by teachers to teach language arts using the game and heroic literature (students are called “heroes” and teachers “lore keepers”); and the Club was designed by a teacher of Zach’s – “Ms. Kelly” – to give students at this middle school in New York State a meaningful way to learn and play together, using the curriculum. “For some of the kids it was remedial English,” she wrote me. “For others, it was English enrichment. WoW Club had kids who would’ve been classified as gifted, kids who were in the learning center for learning disabilities and everything in between, from 6th through 10th grade – multiple ages, learning abilities and learning styles.”

For Zach, a special needs student due to a childhood brain injury, it was remedial, but he loved it. Even after moving on to high school, he took a bus back to his old middle school four afternoons a week for two more years of WoW Club.

Thank you from a parent

“For the first and only time in his childhood,” his mother wrote Kelly in a thank you email, “Zach has belonged to a CLUB. His Club. Four days a week after school was often the ONLY social contact he had. He learned HOW to be part of a group, online safety, literacy through recommended readings and discussions, leadership skills through the opportunity to mentor others, how to have an ongoing relationship with an adult teacher who got to know him better than ANY OTHER throughout his teen years and most importantly (to us), that he mattered to others. He was no longer (socially) invisible.”

She continued, “It is hard to describe to others how difficult it is for a child with special needs (yet ‘typical’ enough to be mainstreamed in school) to find their niche – so many activities, sports, clubs, yet so many barriers due to challenges in abilities and basic social skills. So many peers yet SO MUCH rejection because of the many ‘off,’ ‘not quite right’ appearances, verbal deficits and behaviors that are magnified in the eyes of adolescents. It is hard for others, even dedicated educators, to get that it is possible for a student … to be in the midst of so many and so much, yet still be completely isolated.”

A teacher’s-eye-view

Through his teacher’s eyes, here’s the shift Zach experienced: “In the beginning, he would never meet my gaze in conversations and seemed most comfortable keeping to himself. But that wasn’t going to happen in WoW, since the game is designed to foster collaboration – plus Zach’s skill set was pretty awesome and the other kids wanted to learn from him, which meant playing with him or alongside him.”

Then there was the academic challenge. “The language arts course underpinning the gameplay was quite rigorous,” Kelly wrote, “and Zach struggled with that content. So, as he and I worked one-on-one on his language arts, we were also practicing communication, socialization and interpersonal skills.

“The biggest change seemed to happen in Zach’s freshman year of high school,” Kelly continued. He and four other high-school-age Club members took the bus with sports teams scheduled to practice on middle-school fields, and “my WoW heroes would march into the library just as proud as if they were athletes headed for the locker rooms to suit up for a game…. They’d just sit down, log in and socialize, share, compare notes about the quests, and plan strategies…. Often it was Zach who was explaining to the group what he had figured out, and – although he was not devoid of awkwardness, he was relaxed, and he was a valued, contributing member of his guild.” So much so, she added, he was elected a Guild Officer “and could often be found up and out of his seat, at the far end of the lab helping out one of the younger, less experienced kids…. The laughter was all I ever needed to understand why these kids chose to spend their hours after school in an English course, even if it did involve gaming. The camaraderie experienced in the MMOG [massively multiplayer online game] had definitely transferred to the [students’] world outside the game.”

Clearly it had expanded offline. As Zach’s mom wrote Kelly, “Zach and so many other [students with special needs] find their comfort zone in front of a screen,” she continued, “yet your program proves that a group created in this environment, facilitated by an innovative, sensitive, dedicated professional, can provide a multitude of benefits and is the antithesis of ‘gaming isolation’.”

Self-actualization through play

The WoW Club members’ World of Warcraft guild embraced their offline lives too. They voted to name the guild “The legacy,” Kelly wrote, “knowing that their participation would set the standard for other schools to follow. So far, 12 more schools have done just that.”

Zach and other WoW Club members became leaders, facilitating adult educators’ learning. Kelly wrote that her “WoWinSchool Heroes have hosted teams of teachers on tours of World of Warcraft. They have participated in Webinars and conferences. Some, who have their own accounts outside of school, have even joined in events with the teachers in the game,” which Kelly she truly demonstrates the “leveling of the playing field” that’s happening in education, “providing opportunities for these kids to demonstrate leadership abilities that might otherwise have gone unnoticed, untapped and undeveloped.”

WoW Club Cut

WoW Club was so successful that its underlying curriculum has been moved into language arts classes in the regular school day at this and other US schools. But sadly the club was cut from the school budget this past summer. The only after-school programs that survived were sports and the school play, which can charge admission. When Kelly inquired about running the club without compensation, she was told that “would go against union policy.” She’s still working the problem, enlisting her students’ help.

Maybe parents’ gratitude will help school officials rethink. “We want to express to you our gratitude and respect for the work that you have done and its impact on Zach these last several years,” his parents wrote Kelly. “WoW Club has been one of the most positive and significant factors in his growth, self-esteem and social skills in his middle school/high school experience.” Which got them thinking more broadly: “Your work with technology, learning and social skills is needed in every school. It is visionary, with endless possibilities as the future global online world is here now, before we have time to realize it, and schools in this country are often left behind. Hopefully your skills will continue to be utilized and your impact and contribution to the education and lives of our children acknowledged.”

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